Fight Church: Mixed Martial Arts as Ministry

February 3, 2010 by

Recently the New York Times examined the growing practice of churches and evangelical groups creating mixed martial arts ministries.

[A particular martial arts ministry] is one of a small but growing number of evangelical churches that have embraced mixed martial arts — a sport with a reputation for violence and blood that combines kickboxing, wrestling and other fighting styles — to reach and convert young men, whose church attendance has been persistently low.

The article continues to discuss some of the logic and justifications behind these types of offerings. Essentially, churches are seeing young men disinterested in church participation. What better way to bring in young men and communicate the gospel than by leveraging the popularity of hand-to-hand combat?

Eugene Cho is quoted the article, and he clarifies his stance extensively on his own blog. He makes a great point:

“What I have a problem is when we have Christians, churches, and pastors who now begin to blur the line in the equating of MMA [mixed martial arts] to Jesus; That we somehow speak with great conviction that Jesus would have endorsed MMA or other forms and expressions of the growing hyper machismo culture.”

His whole post is worth a read, then a re-read. But the entire discussion certainly brings up questions of just what we’re communicating.

When you feature a mixed martial arts ministry at your church, what are you communicating that you value? (Please note, a separate issue from what you actually value, which is likely the hearts of young men.) Do you communicate that you are a safe place for people to visit? Do you subtly tell young men that physical violence is acceptable? Do you focus so headily on bodily disciplines that you lose sight of spiritual values?

And by extension, are you communicating that Christ is violent and hyper-macho?

Perhaps, after examining all of these questions, you come away that what you’re communicating is only that you care for young men and want them to know the gospel. But they’re certainly questions you should be wrestling with.

Post By:

Joshua Cody

Josh Cody served as our associate editor for several years before moving on to bigger things. Like Texas. These days he lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife, and you can find him online or on Twitter when he's not wrestling code.
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22 Responses to “Fight Church: Mixed Martial Arts as Ministry”

  • Stephen Cleary
    February 3, 2010

    Jesus Christ could not be characterized as “violent”, certainly.
    However, He is quite different than many modern churches portray Him. Many churches (without meaning to, I think) really project an image of Jesus as a long-haired sissy.
    It is true that He preached love, but it is also true that He preached repentance. It is true that He is coming again to gather His bride, but it is also true that He is coming in vengeance to judge the unbelievers.
    It is true that He told the woman taken in adultery “neither to I condemn thee”, but it is also true that He told her “sin no more”.
    The Jesus who welcomed little children is the same Jesus who made a whip and drove out the moneychangers from the temple.
    I would not say He was violent, but neither was He pacifist.
    I think this kind of ministry is a natural reaction to the sissified Jesuses that many (most?) churches believe in.

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  • Kevin Bowman
    February 3, 2010

    As a pacifist my immediate reaction to this is to want to hurl. However as a friend to one of the sensei’s who has this ministry in his church, my friendship and efforts to “convert” his thinking has mellowed out that reaction.
    In his mind, although I disagree, MMA promote the idea of love by giving a young man the training and discipline to remain focused, aware, and intentional in a violent situation, rather than nervous and therefore proned to unrestrained and unnecessary violence.
    Although, I can not agree with this as a good idea, he points out that Peter still carried a sword.
    I wish churches would invest the time and energy into listening to a person’s bondage, that they do in investing in the marketing ideas of a consumerist culture.

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  • Alissa
    February 3, 2010

    Imho, Bad Idea. Im not quite a propontent of having all sorts of extra ministries in the church other than what is clearly evident in the Bible (discipleship, teaching, prayer, worship through song). Maybe I skipped the chapter on Jesus going Kung-Fu.
    I think that if we want to “draw young men into church” then we need to preach a straight up, no crap, honest, challenging Gospel.. the one Jesus lived out. By doing this we are well on our way to provoking those hearts of men to take action and be involved. This calls people into honest discipleship, bold evangelism, and desiring to show others God’s redeeming love and grace that has so powerfully impacted their life.
    Leave the filled calendar days of random fellowship events, sports teams, crafting clubs, hunting excursions to Gods people to go do with the world. Then maybe we can build some friendships and share the gospel.

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  • Mike
    February 3, 2010

    While I don’t participate in MMA training or events, I workout with guys who do. At least for this particular bunch, it’s not about violence or machismo at all.
    It’s a sport and a physical activity, and one that is so focused on excellence and performance that they are some of the most intense people I know.
    You can’t fake it in this sport!
    I think throughout history males have enjoyed this kind of activity. It’s kind of the way we’re made. So I think for the most part this “culture” is probably more honest and straightforward than most of what goes on in our world.
    So why would it be a problem?

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  • Marc Aune
    February 3, 2010

    A comment to Cho’s article from Paul Souders: “The pecularity of modern American manhood is that it’s defined in contrast to womanhood, which is all backwards. Manhood isn’t the state of not being a woman, it’s the state of not being a boy.”
    For the sake of this discussion, I’ll concede MMA to be a legitimate sport and allow that it is not inherently sinful to participate in it or watch it. If this is true, I still do not see MMA as an effective ministry tool beyond getting people in the door or starting conversations among people who share the same interest. Are Christians so desperate to find something to talk about?
    When I think about my identity as a man, the first three things that come to mind are that I am (1) a sinner loved by God, (2) a devoted husband, and (3) a loving father. Is it naïve of me to think that there are plenty of men who would want to attend an event designed to make them better husbands and fathers? Moreover, what does MMA have to teach me about those things?
    When I hear about new, culturally relevant church ministries designed to reach out into the unsaved community, I always want to know what the church plans to do with these people after they get in the door. Without a plan for assimilation into the body of believers, such events tend to just make its planners and attendees feel good about themselves because the numbers make it look like they’re reaching out to many.
    There is nothing wrong with getting the boys together for some fun, but let’s not confuse that with a true men’s ministry.
    “‘Everything is permissible’—but not everything is beneficial. ‘Everything is permissible’—but not everything is constructive.” – I Corinthians 10:23

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  • Ken Eastburn
    February 3, 2010

    I wonder, though, whether this reaction isn’t just because it is MMA. I know several churches with sports ministries – are they guilty of blurring the line between sports and Jesus? What if it is a book club?
    You know, these ministries may actually prove to be a catalyst for some important conversations like those brought up in the questions above.

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  • Marc Aune
    February 3, 2010

    Good point, Ken. I think that any church ministry should be intentional about helping people pursue a relationship with Jesus Christ, not just about getting together. People can meet on their own to watch MMA, NFL, MLB, etc., and good conversations can come from those gatherings. Maybe it is good for the church building to host such gatherings to help people intimidated by the church be more comfortable with the environment.
    What I wonder is why the church needs to be involved in an official capacity for Christians to have social gatherings with unsaved friends? If the only purpose of an event is to socialize, it propagates an image of church as being just another entertainment option. Isn’t it supposed to be the body of Christ where life transformation occurs?
    All I am asking is that there be something more to it: prayer, Bible study, good questions like “Would Jesus beat Brock Lesnar?” Just watching (or participating in) MMA at a church does not mean it is a ministry. Let’s be intentional about what we do to reach people for Christ.

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  • Steve
    February 4, 2010

    I’m surprised no one mentioned the first rule of Fight Church: Don’t talk about Fight Church.

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  • Hal Thomas
    February 4, 2010

    Maybe the better question isn’t to MMA or not to MMA (or UpWards Basketball, etc.). Maybe the better question to ponder is why does the church keep dreaming up new ways to get people to come to a building (for a program or “ministry” event), rather than taking a life patterned after Jesus to people?

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  • Marc Aune
    February 4, 2010

    Amen, Hal.

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  • Mark Clayson
    February 5, 2010

    This is my first time i visit here. I found so many entertaining stuff in your blog, especially its discussion. From the tons of comments on your articles, I guess I am not the only one having all the enjoyment here! Keep up the excellent work.

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  • Kimberly
    February 5, 2010

    Most revealing quotation about the real motivation behind Fight Church:
    “The man should be the overall leader of the household,” said Ryan Dobson, 39, a pastor and fan of mixed martial arts who is the son of James C. Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family, a prominent evangelical group.
    So, is this just a “creative” way to bring more men to church or a repackaging of the now-rejected theology about a “woman’s place” as subservient to men.

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  • Colin Mattoon
    February 5, 2010

    I share many of your concerns about how Christians are trying to bring the Gospel to MMA. Around January 2009 there was a conference here in Portland OR. called ‘Fighting with God’ that featured Mark Driscoll, Darrin Patrick, Ryan Dobson, and a few UFC fighters. The conference was a perfect picture of whats best and worst at the church’s attempt to bring the gosepl to this subculture. Hearing Mark Driscoll walk through the story of the Bible gave me great hope that we can reach non-christian men with the Gospel. Listening to Ryan Dobson made me afraid we were just going to return to the kind of manhood that fueled the rise of feminism. In the end I think if we don’t read our bibles well, and develop a solid and balanced theology, we will just swing from one extreme (passive men who won’t risk for the glory of god, lead their families in a loving sacrificial way, or be willing to fight for the gospel) to the other extreme (overbearing men who abuse their masculinity to serve themselves, dont lead their families in a loving sacrificial way, and wont subject themselves to following anyone but themselves). Jesus is both the strong lion and the weak lamb. Men need to be bold, courageous, leaders, and willing to risk while also being gentle, loving, forbearing, and servants of all. Having a strong, well informed, theology is the only thing that will keep us from falling into the trap of reactionary thinking about manhood, which is core to the whole idea of how to reach fighters. Those wanting to bring the gospel to this community need to think long and hard about their theology of ‘leading’ and ‘masculinity’. Reading Piper and Grudem’s Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood wouldn’t hurt either to see how to speak about these issues in a humble way. Frankly, the attitude that often comes across from the folks talking about ‘biblical masculinity’ in the fight world is arrogant and harmful to their ultimate cause.

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  • Jessie Jennings
    February 7, 2010

    We discussed this the other night and a key point that came up in the discussion was the fact that their motivation is honorable but their methods seem faulty. As we carry the banner for Christ we have a zeal to reach the world which is great but we would do well to periodically pause to ask ourselves if the methods that we’re using to “market” Christianity are things that Christ would endorse. While MMA is a rising business I’m not sure that Christ would have attended the events if they were around in His time among us. The fact that Jesus corrected Peter when he tried to complete an ear chopping Kung-Fu combo on one of the guards in the garden illustrates that violence is not an activity that He stands behind…even when the motives are pure. I admire their resolve to reach the masses for Christ but I’d head “back to the drawing board.”

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  • Jessie Jennings
    February 7, 2010

    We discussed this the other night and a key point that came up in the discussion was the fact that their motivation is honorable but their methods seem faulty. As we carry the banner for Christ we have a zeal to reach the world which is great but we would do well to periodically ask ourselves if the methods that we’re using to “market” Christianity are things that Christ would endorse. While MMA is a rising business I’m not sure that Christ would have attended the events if they were around in His time among us. The fact that Jesus corrected Peter when he tried to complete an ear chopping Kung-Fu combo on one of the guards in the garden illustrates that violence is not an activity that He stands behind…even when the motives are pure. I admire their resolve to reach the masses for Christ but I’d head “back to the drawing board.”

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  • Ruben
    February 9, 2010

    Seems like there are several issues here and implied questions in people’s comments:
    1. Can a Christian be involved in martial arts?
    2. Should a church promote martial arts?
    3. Are some martial arts taboo but others ok to be practiced by Christians or promoted by churches?
    4. Even if Christian martial arts is ok, might we still market it poorly so it sends a wrong message we don’t want?
    My teenage involvement with martial arts led me away from God, but 20 years later I was able to pick it back up. I now study under a Christian instructor who is training me to use it as a tool for God’s glory. While we learn traditional self defense as well as spiritual application, great emphasis is placed on personal discipline, which is certainly biblically consistent. What good does it do to know how to execute a powerful move if you are too out of shape to do it?
    The important thing is to avoid the mysticism trap that is so common in many martial arts.

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  • Sean Salter
    February 10, 2010

    If you don’t train some form of martial art, or never have, you really have no business having an opinion, no matter how you try and make it sound humble. You don’t get MMA, you never will, so move along nothing to see here. Eugene Cho doesn’t get MMA either, again, keep your opinion to yourself.
    The simple fact that he would for one second say Paquioa > GSP proves my point. Boxers are deathly afraid of MMA because MMA fighters are real warriors, not dudes trying to score points with over sized gloves.
    Machismo, manhood boy, yada yada yada. Too many of you speak, but you really have nothing to say that is relevant to the discussion because you have never trained MMA. You have ZERO idea what goes into it, whats behind it, and why anyone involved would want to turn it into a ministry.
    The sad thing is that this blog entry hasn’t sought out the churches side to the story. I mean come on, the New York Times does legitimate stories on churches all of a sudden? I wasn’t born yesterday. So I will give the church and churches in question the benefit of the doubt.
    I train Muay Thai, I used to train BJJ until I decided I didn’t want collar flower ear. When you train, you train closely, and very intimately with other men. some times its a large group, most of the time its smaller groups and pairings. Its a discipleship system. More experienced fighters train with less experienced fighters and you rotate in and out. You become a brotherhood, a crew, a small elite fighting force. Its something men who lack the warrior spirit or women can’t fathom. Its a bond you can’t touch. But its there, and its strong, and its a breeding ground for other kinds of discipleship. The model Jesus gave us in discipleship fits perfectly into the MMA training formula.
    The simple fact is, Men have lost interest in Church because church is failing to disciple men. We see forms of discipleship every where but church now days. Sports teams and sports camps, car clubs, Guilds in World of Warcraft, I could go on and on, yet the church is sooooooo focused on bringing people in to its building, when Jesus was NEVER about that. He was about relationship, close intimate relationship.
    Men are violent, some more than others. Does anyone read the bible anymore? OT talks much about men filling different roles in Israel, priests, artists. . . WARRIORS. Some men are suited for the pansy life, some aren’t. Not all men are the same. There are those that craft the sword, those that bless it, and those that stick it in the evil guy trying to take over your land. Some of use are warriors. Bible is full of them, David was one. We fight, we ned to fight, and we need to get our aggression out in other ways than talking about it. Talking about emotions is for women. Learning to be a man is also more than throwing a punch correctly.
    And when you train MMA or any form of martial arts correctly, you understand what I am talking about. If you haven’t or don’t currently, your opinion is absolutely pointless, but judge away, thats what christians do best.

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    • mike
      May 25, 2014

      i completely agree, people judge right away eventhough they’ve never tried MMA or know nothing about it. All they see is blood, kicking and punching. MMA is a legitimate sport that tests the body mind and ur fighting spirit. Your will. its more psychological than physical in my opinion. I just had my first day of training people MMA last saturday and I fell so blessed that i wasnt able to reach out to non believers and get them to go to our church to train and at the same time listen to the gospel. at first they might not go there to listen to god’s word but seeing other christians and how jesus is reflected in these people will make them think of picking up the bible one day and read by themselves. I became a christian because of a girl who invited me to church one day. I didnt go bec i wanna go to church. i went there for the chick. then, the word of god touched ,my heart and i kept coming back for more, alone.

      my point is the first thing we need to do is to get them to listen or hear the gospel. we have to be sensitive to people who are non believers. if we will share the word, why not use tools to get people interested?

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      • mike
        May 25, 2014


        i feel blessed that i was able to reach out to non believers.

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  • Danny White
    February 22, 2010

    Anointed Fighter Vision:
    Serve as ambassadors for Christ to the fighting community around the world by creating platforms and resources that deliver the gospel in relevant terms to the fighting culture.
    Anointed Fighter (AF) recognizes that Mixed Martial Arts has become a cultural phenomenon as the fastest growing spectator sport in the world. AF desires to reach the MMA world and its culture with the message of salvation by providing hope, encouragement and truth in a relevant way while breaking down misconceptions of what it means to be a disciple of Christ.
    AF envisions a time when every MMA enthusiast around the world will be impacted by its ministry through licensed merchandise, print publications, multimedia productions and short-term outreach events that will lead to long-term, self-sustaining discipleship programs.
    AF aspires to accomplish these goals by collaborating with the top Christian fighters and best in class organizations within the MMA community. These fighters and organizations will work hand in hand with AF to formulate and deliver the best products and services in their respective fields.
    If you have the vision to impact the MMA community for Christ, we want to work with you.

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  • John Renken
    July 14, 2012

    This is ridiculous. MMA is a sport is not violent. Let me explain about violence for a second. According to the definition of the word and its usage, violence means, “physical force used to inflict injury or damage.” I would like to point out, that by that definition you should be railing against Football. As a matter of fact Football is far more violent, has far more injuries that are far more serious in both duration and severity if you go by the mere definition (but please don’t because I love football). How about Hockey? Seriously, this is comical when you think about it. I mean how many times have you been in church or in a church group and heard the joke, “I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out,” yet people are decrying MMA? Remember I said comical. How about Basketball? Look at how many fistfights of late have been in Basketball, yet I don’t see any of the critics of MMA calling Christians to stop participating there, I wonder why that is? If you actually look at the word violence you will see that the root of the word is to violate. Violate means “treat with violence, outrage, dishonor” and in some etymological dictionaries it refers to it as “violating the rights” meaning that you are destroying someone else’s freedoms and rights. MMA is a contests between two individuals who agree to meet. There is no violation of rights. If we are going to say that MMA is violent that I am waiting for you and other preachers to begin telling the US that Football, hockey, and basketball are ungodly and we should not be watching it, participating in it, or encouraging it.
    As far as Jesus being hyper macho. There must be a balance between the Jesus who cleared the temple and the compassionate loving Jesus. The Jesus who ridiculed and insulted the Pharisees and the Jesus who spoke tenderly to the woman caught in Adultery.

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  • Niki
    July 14, 2014

    What about the Fruits Of The Spirirt? Self control is one of them; as in NOT fighting and taking the high road instead.
    Also what does having MMA in ministry and church teach our sons and daughters? They do not understand the training side of it yet, so definitely the part of MMA that stands out the most is the hitting, punching, kicking, elbowing and
    kneeing of the opponent in an effort to beat them up enough to win. That is not portraying Jesus’ message of kindness and love, and by having it connected to the church, it is showing out children that it is ok to do these things. I have boys and that is not the kind of behavior that I want them to
    have at home or school or anywhere. We need to look at this from all angles, seeing how it affects those with young and teenage children
    already in the church, so as not to give them ideas that contradict each other: Love thy neighbor as thyself… but then fight him???

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